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Dear Minnesota - Hakon Torjesen

Hakon Torjesen

Kenyon, MN - First-Generation - Norway and China


Man dressed in black uniform and black beret holding cane in living room
Hakon Memorial Day, Photo Credit: Karen Torjesen, 2020

Dear Minnesota,

I was born in Norway to Norwegian missionaries. When I was four months they carried me to China via the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Their work was in one of the more remote and poverty-stricken areas of the country. This was during the chaotic years of the Japanese invasion of China.

My siblings and I grew up bilingual in Norwegian and Chinese.  And we learned English real fast when we ended up at a British boarding school for missionary children. Only a few months later we got the sad news that our father had been killed in a targeted bombing raid of the mission station. Then came Pearl Harbor. For westerners living in Japanese occupied China, life soon resembled and then way surpassed today's restricted coronavirus living. Our family ended up spending three years in a Japanese Internment camp. There the schooling continued, even though we were often hungry or cold.

Group of students and soldiers staring into distance with concerned looks on their faces
Hakon leaving train after release from Japanese Prison Camp, Photo Credit: Unknown, 1945

And we dreamed of a better future. An American told me about Minnesota. It had a good State University, he said.  So that became my dream. In August 1945 we were liberated by seven American paratroopers, including a graduate of our school, who had requested the assignment. We then went from being prisoners to being refugees, and it took many months to get resettled. My mother and younger brother returned to Norway. My sister and I came to America to continue our studies. Eventually, all the Torjesen kids got their Minnesota degrees and became Americans.

I married a Minnesota farm girl. We took our children out of school for six months to work in a Lao refugee camp. This led to our book, "The Gift of the Refugees". At age 92, the coronavirus is giving me a second crack at a constrained lifestyle. But this one is a breeze compared to internment.  We even have enough to eat.

And that's my story,

Hakon Torjesen

Cover of book that reads "The Gift of Refugees" featuring image of smiling group of children
The Gift of the Refugees - Photo Credit: Karen Torjesen, 2020
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